Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Disrupting Class & Oversold and Underused

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom have a lot in common. Christensen and Cuban agree that American schools should be more than just about more than just preparing future workers to be economically competitive. Both feel that the billions of dollars spent on computers have resulted in little change in how students learn. Both call for restructuring schools and how teachers are prepared. And both argue that poverty needs to be addressed in any discussion of school reform.

Christensen’s arguments are based on his experience with business; in this book he turns his attention to education while looking at education reform through the lens of business innovation. I have to admit that I was a little put-off by some of the generalities that open Disrupting Class. For instance, Christensen begins his discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation with a reference to the Japanese economy. His assertion that the post-World War II Japanese economy flourished solely because of intrinsic motivation, and then failed once the country became prosperous (hence, according to his theory, its citizens are no longer motivated intrinsically), seems an overgeneralization.

Additionally, given the fact that Christensen warns against the current view that schools function primarily to prepare a competitive workforce, I was leery of his reliance on so many business examples to illustrate his ideas for what’s needed in education reform. However the book takes off once the author describes the concept of disruptive innovation, “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.” http://www.claytonchristensen.com/disruptive_innovation.html. The theory makes sense in the business world – Sony transistor radio, Ford Model T, Southwest Airlines, and the Toyota Prius are all businesses that illustrate his theory.

Despite my reservations, much of his business theory does make sense with regard to school reform, and what I’ve personally experienced as successful pedagogy. For example, I’ve been involved in the development of an educational social network called Youth Voices for a number of years now. Youth Voices fits at least some of the description of disruptive innovation in the sense that it wasn’t developed in my school or within my existing school structure, and that since it’s built on a Drupal CMS it’s pretty simple. (I suppose it would be at the “invention” level of integration using Cuban’s terms). It seems to be an example of a user network that’s student-centered and fosters interdisciplinary connections.

However, Youth Voices isn’t the complete separation that Christensen advocates. The composing that my students do in Youth Voices still originates out of a traditional face to face structure. Christensen instead seems to be arguing for separation, most notably in the form of a charter school. I like Christensen’s point that the charter school can serve as a R&D lab and that the lessons learned can be taken back to mainstream public schools to understand how to best meet the needs of our diverse learner population. I think it’s important to note that he says that the goal of the charter movement is not to create permanent replacements or competitors for public schools. To fit his model, charters have to be temporary from the outset. That flies in the face of the present charter school movement in Utah, where I live. To me it looks like much of the charter movement in my state is about segregating public schools, and entrenching or even further exacerbating the class distinctions.

Cuban also mentions the need to alleviate the effects of poverty as one of his solutions that we need in order to address the ecology of schooling; among other things he writes, “the special needs of urban schools and low-income communities would require sustained attention to the links between economic, social, housing, and political structures of the neighborhood and schooling.”

Both Cuban and Christensen call for a drastic restructuring of schools before any technology can bring about change. Cuban concludes his book with this thought: “Without a critical examination of the assumptions of techno-promoters, a return to the historic civic and social mission of schooling in America, and a rebuilding of social capital in our schools, our passion for school-based technology, driven by dreams of increased economic productivity and the demands of the workplace, will remain an expensive, narrowly conceived innovation.”

While Christensen draws on his business experience, Cuban draws his conclusions from observations of what goes on in Silicon Valley schools. His descriptions of the unintended outcomes of computers in schools corroborates much of Christensen’s conclusions: Cuban finds no evidence of academic achievement as a result of vast expenditures on computers, he sees a sustaining of existing patterns of teaching, and very little evidence of student-centered, project-based, or interdisciplinary learning. Cuban offers a few plausible explanations for these unintended outcomes – the “slow revolution” and “history and context” explanations – but neither can explain the early adopter teachers that he profiles. What he learns from these “mavericks” is that in order to successfully integrate computers and education, teachers need to change their pedagogy.

Both authors realize the numerous obstacles in the way of this kind of reform. One such obstacle is the apparent lack of faith in teachers. Christensen suggests, “Don’t place artificial limits on what students can take online or what teachers can build online either... if they want to create content and lessons, let them do what they need to do, what they want, and what works best for them.” Cuban argues that schools need to rethink how time is allocated for teachers, that software needs to be developed specifically for teachers and students, and that products need to be tested by teachers and students before being sold to districts.

Both authors agree that teacher education needs to change as well.
Christensen says that we should stop training teachers them for a “world of monolithic, teacher-led content delivery, where the key skills are in holding students attention to subjects that are being taught to the dominant learner in each subject, trains teachers for the past.” I too agree that “future teachers will need the skills to work one on one with different types of learners as the study in student-centric ways. The tools that teachers build and distribute in the user networks of the future will play a key role in making learning student-centric. The next generation of teachers needs to learn how to build these tools for different types of learners.” However, to me it’s not an either-or. Future teachers and students need to master both skills – they need to be the guide by the side AND the sage on the stage.

Additionally Christensen’s agenda for graduate school research hit home as well, when he says that we need to “progress beyond doing descriptive research that seeks average tendencies.” His call to study anomalies and outliers and to understand why an action worked in one circumstance but not in another seems like pretty good advice to me. His definition of descriptive research made me realize that I’ve got to carefully consider my own research methodologies.

Ultimately though, Cuban’s conclusion spoke to me most. His discussion of social capital, the building trust and cooperation in society to keeping democracy vital, made a lot of sense to me. In the end he reminds us why we need reform done right. “Without a broader vision of the social and civic role that schools perform in a democratic society, our current excessive focus on technology use in schools runs the danger of trivializing our nation’s core ideals.” That philosophy needs to underpin all our efforts.

No comments: